Opening My Eyes
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
February 16, 2019
22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people[d] brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” 24 And the man[e] looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus[f] laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”[g]
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher,[g] let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Please Note: The following contains my own personal story. Each of us has our own story that we need to process, especially as it pertains to race. My intent in sharing was to help us be more open to tell our stories and begin to dialogue around issues of race in our own communities, families, and at First Friends. This is not an easy conversation and remember that one sermon does solve or conclude the conversation. This is a conversation starter if anything. Read it or listen to it with grace.
This has been a very full week. I have had an overwhelming amount of positive conversations, discussions and dialogue about last week’s celebration of Black History Month and the racial tensions in our country. As well, I have sensed a deep desire from so many of you that the race conversation must continue at First Friends. As part of my exchanges this week, I was asked several questions, but one had me really processing.
How as a white man did you become so passionate
about racial issues in America?
I know many of you have heard bits and pieces of my story, but this morning, I am going to be vulnerable and open another window into my own personal journey. I believe it is important to share our stories to give permission and help each other process our stuff. Back on Friends Education Fund Sunday last year, I openly shared a bit of my “coming to racial awareness” story. There I talked about my profound experience at the King Center in Atlanta in 1998 and my realization that I had not been taught the full picture of history especially as it pertained to African Americans in our country. But as I have continued to unpack my story, I have realized the Holy Spirit was preparing my heart for that moment from my earliest days.
Let me return once again to when I was about 5 years old. If you remember from a previous sermon, my mom was in charge of our church’s Vacation Bible School program. It was at that summer’s VBS that I had played “what do you want to be when you grow up” charades and let everyone know that I wanted to be a pastor for the first time. But even before I had that experience that week of VBS, I took a bus ride with my mom to pick up some children in a place called, “Riverhaven” on the outskirts of my hometown of New Haven, Indiana. I remember my mom being a bit uncomfortable with us going to this neighborhood. I, on the other hand, was just excited that I was getting to ride the bus, since morning Kindergarten students didn’t ride the bus.
The bus driver drove us out of town to this unmarked neighborhood. As the children who lived there heard the bus, they came running knowing we were going to take them to VBS. It wasn’t just their excitement that was burnt into my young mind, it was something else. Today, I would call it the deplorable conditions that these children and their families were living in. Most houses had no front doors and their foundations were made of mud and dirt. Many of the children were white, but some were brown skinned. I think this may have been my first experience seeing a person of color in my very white small town.
I don’t think my little mind could wrap itself around the fact that most of these kids would hop on a bus for a momentary reprieve from the hard life they lived. These kids did not go to school, they did not have cars, and the way they took cookies and Kool-Aid at our snack break was as if they had not eaten all week – which today I realize was probably true.
Growing up, I heard often of “those people” in Riverhaven.
I also heard often of those type people possibly making it out and moving into another neighborhood in my town. That would often be vocalized, “those people are going to bring the property values down.” I heard this so many times growing up that at times I was worried that one of these “outsiders” would actually move into our neighborhood. For some reason these “outsiders” were introduced to me as bad.
If you were a person of color, or a person of extremely low means, or if you had a mental disability, and were walking around my hometown, you were labeled, watched, and people talked about you. This was before official Neighborhood Crime Watch Programs were enforced, but believe me, they were happening.
In my own neighborhood or subdivision (what I grew up calling “the addition”), which I am pretty sure was 100% white, we talked about “the bachelor” that probably was gay, the white trash who needed to clean up the cars in their yard, and the lady we called, Old Gypsy. What I realized over time was that you don’t need to have persons of color in your neighborhood to be racist.
As with most people in my small town, we had relatives and friends who lived close enough that I could ride my bike to their houses. There were determined ways for me and my friends to go to avoid certain houses with questionable people. Even though our small town was almost 100% white, when the doorbell would ring at my grandma’s house, she would use the phrase that combined the n-word and “knocking” together. I always quickly looked out to see if there were actually black children outside running – there never were. As I grew older, I met some of those kids on her block and yes, I did some ringing and running as well.
Grandma also used the n-word to describe any car with curb feelers or loud radios. On many occasions when traveling through certain parts of town, we had to lock our doors and roll up our windows. Sometimes, we even went out of our way to avoid certain parts of town that were deemed dangerous or where “those people” lived.
I stayed pretty sheltered throughout grade school having little to no interaction with people of color. Actually, it was almost impossible with the systems that was set up, both in my neighborhoods and my Christian School.
I was taught to see people of color as entertainers and athletes. And as I have said before, I did not know their history because my books – even those at the Christian school avoided talking about it.
It wasn’t until my high school days that I would again be presented with another issue directly related to race. My family and I had started to attend a different and much larger and affluent church. They had a large youth group that went on big trips during the summer. On one of the trips, I met a young woman of color and we became friends. I did not see her as any different from any of my other friends. We talked a lot even though she was a bit shy. Actually, on the way home from our destination we sat together and talked the entire time. As with all fun youth group trips, there were lots of photos taken (even though this was pre-smart phones). After returning, I was sharing with my grandmother the photos of the trip. I will never forget her words as she looked at my photos. “Who is the colored girl?” I said it was a friend. Then she said to me, “You aren’t interested in a colored girl, are you?” I didn’t show it, but I was shocked, but also confused. Why was that an issue. It must have bothered me enough that I really didn’t pursue the friendship, but what it did do was cause a new tension in my heart and soul.
For numerous reasons, I ended up leaving that church, and started attending a church on the Southside of Fort Wayne. Ironically, in a neighborhood where if I was driving through, we most likely would have locked the doors and rolled up the windows. I was introduced by some friends to a much more diverse group of peers. Soon, they became my new youth group and often I would have this new group of youth over to my house. I didn’t worry about what my neighbors thought. But I am sure they were talking.
Even though I was experiencing more diversity, it was causing me as a high schooler to deal with more than just issues of race. For the first time, I was even questioning some of the beliefs about my church.
· Why didn’t my church ordain women? Weren’t we created equal?
· Why did my church seem to be Republican? Wasn’t God neither Democrat or Republican?
· Why were people who believed differently than my church seen as wrong? or unacceptable? especially people from other factions of our denomination.
· And why did it seem everything was focused on purity?
There were other questions, but I think you get the point.
By this time, I had heard the call of God and was heading to college to study for the ministry. At the time, my theology had taught me that people needed to be “saved” (and that I was part of the work) …being saved from what though, that was the question? All my past experiences left a division in my soul and I was feeling torn in so many ways. I was being called into a ministry that seemingly was out to give people answers, to tell them their place, and ultimately help them know if they were in or out, accepted or not, heaven or hell bound. Forgiveness and grace had kind of taken a back seat.
I went off to college with this all swirling in my head. Knowing what little I knew about what then was called, “Inner City Ministry.” I just assumed that was something that I would be called to and told my program director that is what I wanted to focus on at college. With much grace and a smile on his face, he said, well Bob you might want to get involved with a church in the “inner city” before you make that decision.
So in my naivete that is what I did. I contacted the only African American pastor, I knew at the time, Pastor Russell Belisle. He had been a teacher at my high school, but I had never had him for a class. He had just started pastoring St. Philip Lutheran Church on the south side of Chicago. I called him and told him my hopes. And he agreed to a plan where I would bring a group of students from the college to his church once a month on a Saturday for a neighborhood children’s ministry. My thought was that we 10 or so white students were bringing hope and help and salvation to this Black “inner-city” congregation.
Boy, was I so very wrong. Everything I was taught growing up was being shaken at its core. Nobody was talking about who was in or out. We were welcomed with open arms by the black community. I remember distinctly, Pastor Belisle asking me one Saturday to help him teach a lesson on Philip and the Eunuch. His church was named after St. Philip but more importantly I was to focus on the Eunuch from Ethiopia. First of all, I wasn’t too familiar with this story, and second of all, I thought what an unusual story for us to teach kids. How about Noah and the Ark or Jesus feeding the Five Thousand? No, it would be Philip and the Eunuch. Then Pastor Belisle brought out a painting of Philip and the Eunuch to help illustrate the story. The painting depicted the Eunuch rightly as a black man from Ethiopia. Quickly I glanced around the fellowship hall to find I was surrounded also by a Black Jesus, and a Black Lord’s Supper. This was the first time I had experienced Black Religious Art and it had a profound experience on me and continues to be reflected in my own art today.
My eyes were beginning to open to much more than bringing hope, and help, and salvation. I was being invited to become a student and I was the one receiving hope, help, and a new sense of salvation that was helping me deconstruct what I had been taught, seen, and had experienced. I realized more than anything I had so much more to learn.
Now folks, it would still be almost 10 years before I would find myself standing in the King Center Museum in Atlanta, GA listening to Dr. King’s “I Have Been To The Mountaintop” speech the night before his assassination, wiping away tears and being overcome with the realization that I am just as guilty of the attrocities against African Americans in this country as those spoken of in that museum. Whether by my unawareness or my compliance, I have to admit I have racism in me. I was raised with it all around me. This realization has left me uncomfortable for quite some time. I think it is as writer Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove says, “I am a man torn in two.”
What I have come to realize is that not only do I live in an ever-more polarized world, but I also have a polarized heart. And I would go one step further an agree with Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, the gospel of Jesus Christ that we follow is divided and polarizing in our country, as well. At times it has been used to teach freedom and at other times it as kept people in bondage – or as Jonathan Wilson Heartgrove calls it, “Slaveholder Religion.”
Even though I don’t completely know his reasoning, maybe actor Liam Neeson is to be more of our example than our whipping boy. He too seems to be a man torn in two by his own racism. But I can relate and maybe you can, too. I have to admit that I have had racist thoughts or wanted to harm people that have hurt people close to me. The truth is we have to deal with our own stuff and confess and even repent of our unawareness and compliance to make a change. It starts with me.
As Pastor Belisle told me on the phone this week, after he called me in response to an email I sent him to catch up since our days working together at St. Philips in Chicago. He said, “Liam Neeson’s comments bring hurt feelings, especially to those of the black community. But our job is to work on moving from hurt feelings to embracing grace.” He also added, “Never forget, forgiveness is a process. It doesn’t happen over night. But it is what the church has to offer the world right now.”
As an article that was shared with me this week about the polarization in our world concluded,
“A world with no mercy or grace is an ugly world indeed.
And we’re building that world for ourselves, brick for crick.”
To me that is just the juncture where we as Quakers and Followers of Christ have something to say and live out. But like my own journey has proven over and over. Often I am BLIND to what is really going on. I am missing the bigger picture. I am stuck in the polarization. I am worked up on being a “savior” when I actually need one.
That is when I read a short section in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s new book, “Reconstructing the Gospel” titled “You have to Want to See.”
I would like to end with reading this to you.
At the center of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ message is framed by two stories about blind men receiving their sight. These stories serve as a window through which Jesus’ healing and teaching are revealed. Like a refrain in a well-crafted poem, they sum up the heart of Jesus’ message.
Through these stories, Mark asserts that the gospel is about learning to see, which, in its own way, speaks to our most basic problem. Sin is a kind of blindness. In order to show us, his readers, what we cannot see on our own, Mark invites us to observe how Jesus restores sight to two blind men.
The first man is led by the hand, as blind people often are, to Jesus. Word has gotten out. Jesus can make the blind to see again. Taking this unnamed man by the hand, Jesus becomes his guide. He walks him to the edge of town, spits on his eyes, and asks, “Do you see anything?” (Mark 8:23).
Yes, the man can see people. But by his own account “they look like trees walking around.” (Mark 8:24) His sight is blurry. So Jesus touches him a second time, and he sees everything clearly.
Two chapters later, Mark introduces a second blind man, Bartimaeus. This time, the one who cannot see is shouting, “Have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47). Because he cannot see, he is willing to break protocol – to face the rebukes of those who tell him to sit down and shut up – because he wants to see. No one leads Bartimaeus to Jesus. He throws off his cloak and runs to him.
And there before the crowd – before the whole audience of Mark’s life work and the good news about Jesus – Jesus askes Bartimaeus the most basic questions of the human heart: “What do you want?” (Mark 10:51). This is the question Jesus has been trying to get his disciples to grapple with. They’ve seen his power. They’ve believed his message. They’ve left everything to follow him. But “what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus asks them (Mark 8:36).
What do you really want?
Before encountering Bartimaeus, Jesus has responded to a rich young ruler. After the tragic encounter with the young ruler Jesus tells the disciples, “Many who are first will be last, and the last share be first” (Mark 10:31). And then, when they think they’ve turned from worldly success to pursue a seat beside their Lord in his coming kingdom, Jesus challenges them again: “Whoever want to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:44)
What do you really want?
Baritmaeus isn’t just answering this question for himself. As Mark tells it, he’s answering for the disciples and the crowds and the religious leaders – for all of us who are blind, even if we don’t know we cannot see.
What do you want? Jesus asks him.
“Rabbi, I want to see” (Mark 10:51).
Of all the prophetic words in Scripture, Bartimaeus’s simple confession may be the most damning of slaveholder religion and its habits, which have been passed down to us. If we are honest to God and ourselves, we have not wanted to see. Far too often, we have chosen blindness, even refusing the hands of friends who reached out and tried to lead us to the one who could restore our sight.
Our racial blindness is generational and multilayered, folded in among all that is true and good about our faith. There is no easy way to be freed from it….I cannot autocorrect in real time for the very blindness I’m trying to recover from. I’m like Bartimaeus, running toward Jesus, hands out to catch me if I trip and fall in the darkness that surrounds me. Still, I find hope in the way this gospel story shows us that all freedom begins with us wanting it.
You have to want to see.
The desire itself is the interruption that can save us. As long as we sacrifice ourselves to a false sense of duty – fighting for what we already know to be good and true – we are captive to the spirit of men who help keep other people captive. But if we let our guard down – if we can but allow ourselves to be present with the real people in our lives, we can learn to want new things. All desire is bodily. If we can sit down to eat together, we can take in not only the food we long for but also fellowship we so deeply need.
In the early 1800s…a young white boy named Levi Coffin watched people who looked like him march enslaved African Americans down the road in front of his house. These men had run away to freedom, Coffin later learned, but the laws of the United States allowed slave catchers to capture and return them to bondage. Coffin was troubled by what he saw, and he never forgot it. Following the Jesus he first met in a Quaker meeting house outside of Greensboro, North Carolina, Coffin went on to devote his life to abolition, becoming the unofficial “President of the Underground Railroad” before his death in 1877. By grace, Coffin learned to see.
What I am saying to us this morning, is I am still learning to see. Each day opens up my eyes to more of the story and my place in it. I need forgiveness. I need to repent. And I need to admit I have often been blind and I continually need to learn to see better. How about you?
What do you really want?
Do you want to see?
What can you do to learn to see better?